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Pixel Peeping Suffocates Creativity

Pixel peeping. A purely digital phenomenon and something very strange to those of us brought up on analog photography.

A couple of years ago, Sarah was attending a County Show in North Derbyshire for her Showfield book. A keen photographer saw she was using a Leica and decided to have a chat with her about camera gear…

Now, you can talk to Sarah about anything, she’s one of the chattiest people around, but not about camera gear. She has no interest in equipment, pixels, sharpness, bokeh or any of that stuff. She knows what she likes, and that’s as far as it goes. Anyway, the guy was chatting away and after a few minutes he took a bubble-wrapped Nikon out of his camera bag. “This camera takes amazingly sharp pictures.” With that, he carefully put it back into his bag…

it was the job of the film manufacturers to supply the tone, sharpness, colour and contrast of an image, not the camera.

Photographers have always been into gear. It’s only natural. We use it every day and build a relationship with it. As part of our job, we need to know what it does and how to use it. A camera becomes part of who we are and the vehicle for how we interpret the world.

My career to date has been split evenly between film and digital. I spent the first fifteen years shooting with film and the last fifteen shooting digital. With digital, I have upgraded my work cameras seven times. With film, I upgraded them twice.

In my film days, I would purchase a couple of different cameras and expect to keep them for my career (that didn’t quite turn out as planned!!). I had a medium format system and a 35mm system. If any of the bodies wore out, they were upgraded to the latest model. For most of my film career, like many photographers, I used older models alongside the latest.

We could do this because it was the job of the film manufacturers to supply the tone, sharpness, colour and contrast of an image, not the camera. Unfortunately, with digital, the camera manufacturer also became the film company and that’s when it all got really messy.

Camera companies need to sell units, so they tempt us, quite successfully, to periodically upgrade our existing gear regardless of whether it is still capable of producing the results that we and our clients want. They do this by telling us that our pictures will be clearer, sharper, and more colourful if we buy the latest. We can have more pixels with less noise, more accurate autofocus, and can take pictures in darkness.

Cameras are sent to review sites where test photos of inanimate objects are blown up to 100% to show noise and sharpness. Glossy brochures follow, littered with high colour, bitingly clear, noise-free photographs. No wonder we are obsessed with how sharp and clean an image is.

It’s a stupid, ridiculous thing to do and has absolutely no relevance to photography in the real world.

This obsession has led to the disorder known as pixel peeping. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it means zooming into an image and checking things like focus, noise and sharpness at pixel level. It’s a stupid, ridiculous thing to do and has absolutely no relevance to photography in the real world.

I’ve seen photographers reject good images which were not quite sharp at 100% on a large 4K monitor, and yet those same images would have looked stunning when printed to 60 inches wide. How so? Because we don’t view a 60 inch print with a loupe from an inch away!! We stand back from the print to view it and that improves our perception of sharpness.

The truth is that when we zoom into 100% on our screens, we are putting our noses up to a 60″ print, taking a loupe out, and seeing how sharp it looks. Unfortunately, most pixel peepers don’t get their images printed. If they did, they wouldn’t pixel peep!!

Is it only photographers who do this?

Outside of an analytical or scientific environment, it’s difficult to find examples of pixel peeping in other visual arenas. Throughout modern history, cinema has probably been the most popular form of visual entertainment. A lot of today’s cinema chains with big theatres charge extra for premium seats. These aren’t located at the front of the theatre where the movie looks soft and fuzzy, but further back at the point where the audience can see the whole screen without moving their heads and where the quality of the image is at its best.

When I first saw ‘The Milkmaid’ by the 17th Century artist, Johannes Vermeer, I was stunned by the use of light, composition, and texture. From the correct viewing distance, it could almost be mistaken for a photograph with its tonal range and subtlety of colour, detail and mood. Move closer to and it’s obvious that it is a painting. Closer still (the Rijksmuseum has a cool website that allows you to do this) and it breaks up into brush strokes and blotches of colour. We are at brush level. The 17th century equivalent to pixel peeping?

Outside of academia, I’m not sure there are many people who would want to view a masterpiece at brushstroke level. Most people would prefer to stand back and be moved by the artist’s talent. So why do photographers view their art differently?

A photograph should be a means of expression, not a technical exercise.

So how is pixel peeping suffocating creativity?

I alluded to it in part, when I mentioned the photographers deleting perfectly good images because they looked very slightly unsharp while pixel peeping at 100%. It goes further than this though. Once we become obsessed with looking at image quality, the technical side of our brain takes over from the artistic. We start to judge our images based on how technically good they are, not their artistic content. A photograph should be a means of expression, not a technical exercise.

Take a look at the famous blurry D-Day landing photographs by Robert Capa. Whether you believe they were a result of a darkroom mishap or a massively overexposed negative, it makes no odds. They are incredibly powerful, brilliantly composed images. Technically? They are soft and blurry.

Much of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work would be deleted as unsharp by the pixel peeper. William Klein’s work too. Daido Moriyama – let’s just not bother giving the guy a camera, as all of his work wouldn’t pass muster at 25%, let alone 100%!!

Pixel peeping example of boy at a fairground

When pixel peeping at this image, it looks soft. It’s taken with a low shutter speed at night. The focus isn’t precise. It would be rejected by a lot of photographers. However, this image has mood and atmosphere, and shows the moment a young kid tries to avoid a soaking from a log flume.

What can we do to cure ourselves from pixel peeping?

Personally, I am not concerned with sharpness, noise, or critical focus as long as the picture is good and conveys what I want. I view all of my images at 25% in Photoshop and 1:4 in Lightroom. This gives me the best representation of how a print will look and what the perceived sharpness will be. It’s a start and if you are used to zooming in, try zooming out and see what happens to the ‘sharpness’ of the image.

Ultimately, the real cure comes from printing. Once you see how wonderful that ever-so slightly soft image looks on paper, you are a step closer to being cured.

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